Bad reason to invade Iraq No. 2: weapons of mass destruction

Even if Saddam Hussein had retained WMDs, so what?

I covered the Iraq war from the summer of 2003 until 2008, and saw at first hand the consequences of the decision to invade. Skeptical of the wisdom of the war before the invasion, living and working in Iraq solidified that into certainty. I'll be putting out some of my thoughts on the war in a series of posts in the next few days.

The biggest “argument” made for invading Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had sundry chemical weapons programs: He had roving chemical weapons labs on wheels, he had weaponized anthrax, he had tons of sarin nerve gas that he was itching to offload to a multinational terrorist group, he’d even somehow managed to clandestinely revive his nuclear program.  

“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice solemnly warned America.

As it turned out, none of this was true. Relentless economic sanctions since the Gulf War had crippled Iraq’s economy and driven basic measures of national wellbeing, like childhood mortality and lifespan, through the floor. Saddam had given up all of his chemical weapons stockpiles, abandoned efforts at biological weapons, and had no ongoing nuclear work of any kind. Today these are indisputable facts.

But setting aside how Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi, eager to draw the US into a war for their own purposes, were allowed to spin a web of hearsay, rumors, and fabrications into an argument for war with the help of the Bush administration, let’s assume for a minute they were right. Would that have then been a justification for the invasion?

Probably not. Saddam Hussein had certainly possessed chemical weapons in the past, and had even used them – on the Kurds at Halabja in 1989 and during his brutal war with Iran at various points, including mustard gas on the battlefield in 1984, during a period of détente between Washington and Baghdad.

That didn’t trouble the US much in those days. Despite strong evidence of the Iraqi Army's use of chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1984, the US nevertheless went ahead with full normalization of relations that year.  

Why? Because US officials were worried that Saddam might lose his war with the Islamic Republic.

Relations with him soured after his invasion of Kuwait in 1989, and the US became much more interested in human rights violations by his Baath regime after that point. The horrors of Halabja were frequently referred to, but if in 1991 or 1992 Halabja wasn’t an argument for regime change, why would it become one a decade later?

The answer is that it shouldn’t have. There was no reason to suspect Hussein would arm Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that hated his regime almost as much as it hates the US, with chemical weapons, thus losing control of when, if, and against whom they’d be used. So far in human history, no government has done that. And he knew that such an action would almost certainly precipitate the US-led invasion that he’d long feared.

What about the “mushroom cloud?” Again, there was no evidence of an ongoing nuclear program (because there was no ongoing nuclear program) but if there had been, does that require regime change? Not as the first order of business (witness how Iran is being handled, which has an actual and sophisticated nuclear program and has for many decades).

And certainly not because Al Qaeda, a group with no ties to or direction from the Iraqi regime, had managed to take over a few airplanes with boxcutters and fly them into buildings in the US.

Read the first installment of this series, "Bad reason to invade Iraq No. 1: Saddam was 'evil'," here

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, former and current Monitor journalists who covered the war are looking at where the Iraq stands today and how things stood at the peak of the war. 

Ten years after invasion, Iraq remains dangerously divided – In the new Iraq, old sectarian fears remain. Around Baghdad's Green Zone, concrete walls pulled down a year ago are going back up.

The day the conflict changed – Ten years after the Iraq invasion, reporter Scott Peterson recalls the day a suicide attack threw him out of bed in a formerly quiet Baghdad neighborhood – and blew a hole in any sense that the war was keeping its distance.

On the road to Baghdad for 17 days – Andy Nelson, who photographed the US invasion of Iraq, recalls the pulling down of Saddam's statue – and early signs of chaos. 

The Iraq war: a timeline – A photo collection depicting the main events of the conflict.  

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